The clink of steaming teapot lids, grumble of metal trolley carts, and clamour of diners asking about the contents of each bamboo basket makes dim sum truly an experience as enjoyable for all your senses as it is for your stomach.
That being said, we get that it can be a little overwhelming for the uninitiated.
Rubber stamps? Flying elephants? Two-fingered bows? Below you’ll find 10 basic rules that will help you navigate the world of dim sum from start to finish.
1. Whoever speaks the best Cantonese or Mandarin should order.
Traditionally, dim sum dishes are wheeled around the dining room on metal trolleys and the servers will stop by your table. They’ll offer dishes on their cart and customers are free to say “yes” or “pass.” Nowadays, for efficiency, many restaurants rely on checklist sheets for order placement — and the onus is placed on whoever’s Chinese proficiency is the best to order. Here’s looking at you, friend-who-paid-attention-in-Chinese-school.
If restaurants still use carts, and you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can always ask for an a la carte menu, which offers regular family style dishes.
2. Don’t over-order, less is more.
“Dim sum” is the Cantonese pronunciation of the word “dian xin” (點心) in Mandarin, which literally translates to “snack.” We get that there might be the temptation to order as many dishes at once, given the small size of the bamboo baskets and the even smaller bite-sized portions of food, but you don’t want to be stranded at the end of the meal with too many unfinished buns. Remember, you can always order more if you’re still feeling hungry after a few baskets.
3. Don’t overstuff your face; again, less is more.
The same concept from Rule 2 also applies for putting food in your mouth.
Even though the items may look bite-sized, it’s better to nibble than to inhale. You can enjoy the flavours of your food more this way and prevent yourself from accidentally scalding your tongue on the hot broth in the xiao long baos.
4. Pour tea for others before you pour for yourself.
The burden of this task usually falls on the youngest person at the table, but regardless of your age, it is always seen as a sign of goodwill and respect to pour tea for others. Also, make sure that all cups remain filled throughout the meal.
Pro tip: Tap your index and middle fingers together on the tabletop while your tea is being poured to show your appreciation. It is shorthand for a bow.
5. Tip your teapot lid up when the tea runs out.
Once the last drop of tea (usually pu’er, jasmine, or chrysanthemum) at the table has been poured out, lift the lid of the teapot and leave it ajar or upside down. This notifies the waiters to refill the pot, without actually having to flag them down.
6. Your chopstick skills will be judged — you have been warned.
Shrimp ha cheung is where your chopstick skills will really be put to the test. And with everyone watching. All the basic rules still apply: don’t stab your food, don’t leave them sticking straight up in a bowl of rice, and don’t serve others with your own chopsticks (unless you’re using the back ends).
That being said, don’t feel bad about asking for a fork if you need one — consuming all the delicious dim sum food is still a top priority! And don’t be afraid to use your hands. You can usually consume buns with hands without running the risk of being judged too hard.
7. No flying elephants.
The flying elephants is a Chinese cheng yu or adage: “fei xiang guo he” (飛象過河), which literally describes an elephant flying across a river. This comes from Chinese chess. One of the pieces is labeled “xiang,” or elephant, and it is not allowed to cross the river on the chessboard into the opponent’s side.
In a similar manner, you aren’t supposed to “cross the river” and go beyond your reach for dishes that are further away from you, as it is considered rude. Instead, you can ask for the dish to be passed to you, or wait for it to come around on the lazy Susan, should your table have one.
8. Don’t ask for extra sauces.
There will usually be a soy sauce dispenser on every table and maybe a shaker filled with white pepper, but generally dim sum food comes well seasoned so you shouldn’t need to add extra spices. But we all know someone who needs to drown their food in chili oil.
Speaking of spices, Cantonese-style food differs greatly from spicy Shanghainese or Sichuan cuisine, so don’t be expecting dishes with a big kick. But feel free to ask your waiter for some chili sauce if you’re really missing the heat.
9. Dessert doesn’t have to come last.
Sweet and savoury delicacies often sit side by side in dim sum, sometimes even in the same trolley. There are no hard and fast rules on what order you have to eat your dim sum in, so go ahead and nab your favourite fried sesame balls or egg tarts if you just can’t wait until the end.
10. Paying for the bill is a free-for-all.
As with most other meals, it is common to fight over the bill once the meal is finished. It is considered polite to try to pay the bill and the “Battle for the Bill” has evolved into a veritable art form. See here for our eight tips and tricks on how to win the fight.
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